For many centuries and even today philosophers have been debating the question over the nature of the good life. Many people believe that ethics is subjective and solely dependent on one’s mental states and beliefs. Others believe that it is objective and that ethics are independent of what one believes or desires. This paper will examine these two views and argue against the hedonist view and in favor of an objective theistic view of ethics which is grounded in God.
One classic subjective view of ethics is hedonism. Hedonism is defined as the view which states that happiness or pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Something that is intrinsically good means that it is good within itself. This view was originally created by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (Shafer-Landau 21). At face value, this view seems correct. We, for the most part, generally want to be happy in life and we consider a life filled with happiness a good life. But the hedonist says that happiness is the only intrinsic good nothing else is intrinsically good. This view is wholly subjective because happiness depends on personal mental states. Also, happiness could be loosely defined thus allowing for multiple contradicting views. One criticism against this view is based off of a life’s trajectory. Let’s say we have two hypothetical lives both with the same amount of happiness. In the first life, seventy-five percent of the total happiness is gained within the first twenty-five percent of the person’s life. In the second life seventy-five percent of the happiness is acquired within the last twenty-five percent of the person‘s life (Shafer-Landau 34-35). It seems that when compared these lives are not of equal worth. The life that gains happiness later on is better because it has an upward trajectory. There must be something more than just happiness if this is true — the trajectory of one’s life. This argument counts against hedonism and shows its falsehood. The second criticism of hedonism comes from Aldous Huxley’s work A Brave New World. The setting of the novel takes place in a utopian society that is controlled by the elite governing forces. These governing forces prevent the society from having any type of unhappy experience and thus, they limit the decisions of humans. These people are medicated and are prevented from any new ways of thought that might cause types of harm. One character named Savage fights for the freedom and liberty to have the ability to do things that might not cause happiness. He believes freedom of choice is better than a society solely determined towards happiness (Huxley 25-30). Freedom and autonomy must also be important in having a good life. Is one happy if they are forced to be happy? If this criticism is sound then hedonism is false. A subjective view of the good life cannot be true and thus we must examine a proposal of an objective theistic view.
An objective view of the ethical life is one that is not dependent on the human mind. For something to be objective means that it must be mind-independent. An objective set of ethics are not created by society nor are they based on any type of human thought for if they were, they would be subjective. This leads us to the view that ethical moral commands and standards come from God. Since the foundation of ethics must exist outside of us, they must come from God. The common title of this view is known as the divine command theory. This theory states that “an act is morally required just because it is commanded by God, and immoral because God forbids it” (Shafer-Landau 61). This whole theory hinges on whether or not God exists, but let’s assume He does. If the divine command theory is true, then actions are good or bad depending on God’s commands. Plato created an argument against this view in his work Euthyphro. Plato asks two questions: Are ethics based on God’s commands? Or are God’s commands based on an objective ethic (Shafer-Landau 63)? If ethics are based on God’s commands that would make all ethical law wholly arbitrary for God could command anything He desired. But if the ethical standard is outside of Him God is no longer the creator of morality or ethics and thus the theist is left with a problem. Plato seems to show that the divine command theory is false. But there is another way out of this dilemma that Plato has created. If God Himself is the source or foundation of ethics it would seem to spilt the horns of this argument. In the western world, God is typically thought of as being all-good and morally perfect such that His essence is good. God’s very being or ontology is good. Thus, if His actual character is good then His commands will follow through in accordance with His character. This rids the idea of God’s commands being arbitrary while grounding the ethical standard in God Himself. God never created ethics because His being is the standard of ethics. If God’s commands are good and if they are morally binding like the divine command theory states, then in order to live a good life one must obey and follow these commands. If God, the Creator of the universe, is good Himself and commands things which are objectively good and forbids things which are morally deficient, we then must follow these commands in order to live in accordance with this standard. Again, all of this presupposes God exists and if He exists which god is He? But that question is for a different time in another paper. It seems plausible that if God exists then we would need to follow His commands in order to have a good life. Obeying His standard leads to a good life.
So what should be concluded with regards to the hedonist view and the objective theistic view of the good life? The hedonist view seems utterly false with the two criticisms brought against it. Not only just the hedonist view but it seems that all subjective views seem to lead to absurdities or some type of contradiction. Ethics must be objective and mind-independent. It seems that they must also be grounded within God Himself. One must live with God’s commands in mind in order to have a good life with human flourishing.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.